Thirty Years Ago, the Challenger Crew Plunged Alive and Aware to Their Deaths

imageThe Challenger made it through the spectacular eruption of its external fuel tank with its cabin more or less intact. Rather than being carried to Heaven in an instant, the crippled vessel kept sailing upward for another three miles before its momentum gave out, then plunged 12 miles to the ocean. The crew was, in all likelihood, conscious for the full two and a half minutes until it hit the water.

NASA did not want the public to know this version of events, and it did everything within its power to keep the original story as the official one. More than two years after the explosion, the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine published an exhaustively reported story by the reporter Dennis E. Powell about the actual, terrifying truth of the Challenger disaster, and about the extraordinary effort NASA put into concealing it.

By the Herald’s account, NASA had failed to take any precautions in the event of a catastrophic but possibly survivable accident. It was of a piece with the hubris and magical thinking that had led NASA to put a civilian social-studies teacher aboard a dangerous spacecraft, for a nation of students to watch live in class. There was no equipment to arrest the craft’s fall or to allow the astronauts to ditch it, nor even an emergency locating transmitter. The crew could do nothing but ride it down. —Gawker